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I bought a pen and a pencil yesterday. What is surprising is this is more expensive than that.

In this sentence, I am not sure what "this" and "that" are referring to. I first thought that "this" refers to "pencil" and "that" refers to any pen that is distant from the speaker.

How can I infer what 'this' and 'that' represent here? Can the represented element of both be inferred from what precedes, ie "a pen and pencil"?

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  • You got that right: this and that here refer to pencil and pen respectively. A similar example: Smoking and drinking are both injurious to health: this perhaps more than that. – user405662 Nov 24 '20 at 13:47
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    'The former' and 'the latter' is standard. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 24 '20 at 15:30
  • @EdwinAshworth Do you mean that those terms (former, latter) are not in the least formal? – LPH Nov 24 '20 at 15:48
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    It is ambiguous. No one should write that way unless they intend it to be confusing. – Hot Licks Nov 24 '20 at 15:48
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    @LPH They're formal but that doesn't stop them being standard. See the Wikipedia attempt to define Standard English. Using 'this' and 'that' without obvious context (pointing say) is hardly conversational anyway, and I'd venture non-standard. Usually, at least one of the nouns would be repeated in conversation. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 24 '20 at 15:53
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It is not the usual way to say that; as far as I know it should not be said that way. In formal writing this would be said as follows.

  • I bought a pen and a pencil yesterday. What is surprising is that the latter is more expensive than the former.

In a colloquial context you could say this.

  • I bought a pen and a pencil yesterday. What is surprising is that the pencil is more expensive.

  • I bought a pen and a pencil yesterday. Surprisingly, the pencil is more expensive.


Addition due to a comment from user 405662

It American English "this" stands for the closest item in the line and that for the other, therefore "this" stands for "pencil" and "that" for "pen" (Merriam-Webster). I do not know whether this is current usage in British English.
For instance, I find the following in the SOED.

3. a In opposition to that; the first of two or more things, esp. the nearer or more immediate or obvious, the thing actually at hand. b [Latinism] The latter now rare or obsolete Middle English.

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  • the one nearer or more immediately under observation or discussion this is iron and that is tin. (Merriam-Webster) Such usage is quite common, in fact. – user405662 Nov 24 '20 at 14:00
  • @user405662 I do find something like that in Lexico, but it applies physically (Referring to the nearer of two things close to the speaker (the other, if specified, being identified by ‘that’) lexico.com/definition/this Maybe this is American only. Is it a recent addition to the language? – LPH Nov 24 '20 at 14:09
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    Quite. In the OP's example, both pen and pencil are equally immediate and obvious. – Andrew Leach Nov 24 '20 at 15:22
  • @AndrewLeach If they are equally immediate and obvious, then the problem stands: which is to be represented by "this"? I do not think that the immediacy bears upon the linguistic context though; I believe that is in reference only to the material context. Since "the latter" is assigned to what is most near in the linguistic context and that "this" is not usable any more, or hardly so (rare), as a synonym, what is immediate to mean in the linguistic context? – LPH Nov 24 '20 at 15:36
  • As you have said, you can't represent either by this or that. – Andrew Leach Nov 24 '20 at 15:38

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